The board game Pandemic probably isn’t the best choice for those looking for a bit of escapism while on lockdown, but if you want to try your hand at saving the world from an outbreak of a deadly disease, set up the map and put your character—scientist, research technician, quarantine expert—on the starting point: Atlanta, home of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Where else could possibly be home base? Since shortly after the end of World War II, the CDC in Atlanta has been the axis mundi of the infectious disease world, head and shoulders above any other national public health agency. And yet, now that a pandemic has actually struck the United States full force, the CDC seems baffled—bumbling, cowed, and, above all, silent. Veteran science and health journalists are stunned by the CDC’s lack of leadership in the very sort of crisis it was born to combat. As one said to CDC head Robert Redfield early last month: “You’re invisible now, sir. Your agency is invisible.”
The problems at the CDC run much deeper than the bungled rollout of coronavirus test kits or sloppy procedures that led to contaminated labs. As serious as these mistakes (and their public health consequences) are, they are not the only reasons that CDC’s reputation has taken such a precipitous tumble. It’s sometimes hard to see the forest fire for the burning tree, but the fall of the CDC is part of a broader trend of exceptional, world-leading American agencies abdicating their preeminent positions. The CDC isn’t even the first example.